What's Tony Thinking

Lady Bird — Hurting and Blessing Those We Love


We went to see the coming-of-age movie, Lady Bird, the other evening. Like half the rest of the people my age I had thought it was about Lyndon Johnson’s wife. It’s not. It’s about a high school senior in Sacramento, California and her hazardous and hysterical attempts to learn to fly (metaphorically, as in leaving the nest).

And it’s about how hard we human beings can be on those we love the most, those closest to us. Strange that.

I recall the Buddhist saying. “It is easiest to follow The Way in the monastery. It is harder to follow The Way in the world. It is hardest to follow The Way in the family.”

The movie centers on the relationship between the girl, Christine a.k.a. Lady Bird (her self-chosen name), and her mother. They love each other and they hate each other. They depend on one another and they devastate one another. In some measure, this may be most (every?) mother/ daughter, father/ son relationship, at least at times. But this one takes it all a bit further. The mother, who is kind and wise in many settings, can be brutal in her verbal attacks on her daughter. She accuses Lady Bird of being ungrateful and selfish. (What parent hasn’t thought that of their child or children at some point? And the truth is, as a teenager I sure was at least sometimes ungrateful and monumentally selfish toward my parents.)

At one point, the mother says she was raised by “an abusive alcoholic,” which may explain some of her harshness and self-destructiveness. She is a deeply wounded person. And deeply loving. And she’s working two shifts at a hospital because her husband has been laid off (a subplot there, aging white guy can’t get work).

With our kids, there are so many pitfalls, so many landmines. It’s hard — but important — to separate out who we are from who they are. Long haul work that.

Another subplot: Lady Bird is at a Catholic high school. Where it was great to see a nun portrayed as a wise, warm, and strong human being, one who can laugh.

Here’s what struck me in Lady Bird. What both mother and daughter most wanted from one another was a blessing. Each wanted the blessing of the other.

The word, “blessing,” is never used in the film. Still, that’s how it seemed to me. You might say they wanted love. You might say they wanted acceptance. At one point, Lady Bird says to her Mom, “I know you love me, but do you like me?” But it seemed deeper or more complex than any of these words — love, like, acceptance — quite conveys. They wanted a blessing. A blessing combines closeness and distance. It is “I love you and I let you go.” (It’s how worship ends, a blessing. God says, “I love you and I let you go.”)

I remember my father’s blessing. I was in my 40’s by then. He was well on into Alzheimers and would die within three months. But he had moments of lucidity. In one such moment, as we walked (he shuffled, we walked very slowly), me on one side and Linda on the other, he stopped. He looked up at me and said quite clearly and deliberately, “You are a good man.” That was it. Back to shuffling forward. Linda said, “Did you hear that?” meaning “did you really hear that? He just gave you his blessing.”

We long for that, for the blessing.


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